April 2, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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The second-season finale of Showtime’s SHAMELESS was unusually low-key for the rambunctious series, the result of having to deal with the aftermath of last week’s Thanksgiving dinner, where bipolar mom Monica (Chloe Webb) very graphically attempted suicide, and of Karen (Laura Wiggins) giving birth to a baby who turned out to have Downs Syndrome.  These were fairly daring choices for a show that spends a lot of its time on casual sex and even more casual thievery, but the underpinnings of the Gallagher family and their relationships are sturdy enough that these dramatic developments left the series stronger and richer as it heads into an already-ordered Season 3.  (It helps to keep things cheerful that Monica is fine, already on the run with her new girlfriend, and Karen’s mom is delighted to be raising the baby.)

The episode was written and directed by series showrunner John Wells, who knows a little bit about life-and-death plot turns from being the man behind ERShameless initially seemed like an odd career turn for Wells, whose reputation, apart from ER, comes from such serious, prestigious dramas as The West Wing, China Beach and Southland.  But Wells also has an indie movie side–he’s produced such films as Far From Heaven and I’m Not There, among others–and the show has so far been a fairly expert mix of lowbrow comedy and poignant drama.
Season 1 ended with Fiona (Emmy Rossum), the twentysomething who conscientiously nurtures, scolds, organizes and protects her siblings while indulging her own fondness for partying, deciding not to run off with car thief boyfriend Steve AKA Jimmy (Justin Chatwin), who ended up coming back from Brazil, still in love with Fiona but in a marriage of convenience with Estefania, a drug dealer’s daughter (Stephanie Fantauzzi).  All this led to Fiona starting to ponder what she’s doing with her life and getting her GED.  At season’s close, it seemed as though Fiona and Steve may finally be getting together, Estefania being conveniently occupied with Fiona’s brother Lip (Jeremy Allen White).  Lip had his own tough season, being homeless for much of it and having to deal with Karen, the sociopathic love of his life and possibly pregnant with his child (not so, as it turned out), marrying recovering sex addict Jody (Zach McGowan), who ended up involved with Karen’s agoraphobic mother Sheila (Joan Cusack), who had previously been semi-living with Frank (William H. Macy), the patriarch of the Gallaghers, who’s not so much a hopeless alcoholic and drug abuser as a wildly enthusiastic one.
Much of the season dealt with parent/child relationships from hell, most notably Frank’s with his mother Peg (Louise Fletcher), perhaps the ultimate battle-axe even as she was being eaten away by cancer.  The Frank/Peg horror story was an example of how Shameless can make the most outrageous, dark bodily function humor illuminate characters, in this case what made Frank the sort of man he is.  Next season promises to enlarge the portrait to include Steve’s family, since we already know Steve’s father Ned (Harry Hamlin) lives a double life that includes having sex with Fiona’s gay brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan).
Shameless benefits from a superb ensemble spearheaded by Rossum, who holds together the show with a mixture of humor, grit and sexuality much as her character does the family, and in the process gives perhaps the least appreciated great lead performance on television.  Although Macy is the cast “name,” and delivers terrific schtick, he often has a more supporting and more overtly comic part to play.  The Gallagher family is uniformly excellent (it also includes Emma Kenney as Debbie and Ethan Cutkowsky as Carl),and the show gets strong support from Steve Howey and Shanola Hampton as the family’s neighbors and friends.
As TV has migrated toward programming built around workplace and genre “franchises,” there are relatively few shows on the air concerned in a serious way with families.  Shameless joins NBC’s Parenthood (albeit in a far more twisted and borderline surreal way) in that group, and although by its nature it’ll always be an uneven and somewhat ragged series, it hits notes about parents, children and the process of growing up (as opposed to aging) stamped with its own special brand of unique.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."